What’s Reno's food?
In search of the city’s signature dish
Chicago has deep-dish pizza. Kansas City has barbecue. Philadelphia has cheesesteak. But what’s Reno’s food? What’s the one item that every visiting tourist arrives in town dying to try? Or the one dish that, if a Renoite were to taste a convincing facsimile, even if concocted far away, would taste like home?
Reno food culture has changed substantially over the course of the last decade or two. Local tastes have moved away from casino buffets and toward locally grown farm-to-table produce, from chain diners to gourmet gastropubs. Food is both how we understand ourselves as a community—we are what we eat—and part of how the rest of the country sees us.
Every local resident probably has a short list of local restaurants where they like to take visiting friends and relatives. But these restaurants are probably chosen more for their overall quality—the best food and ambiance—rather than for representing some unique regional identity. However, there is one ethnic cuisine that is on almost every resident’s list: Basque food.
“Basque is usually mentioned, but we only have two restaurants in town, and I bet more people will say they had a taco than sweetbreads in any given week,” said Todd South, the RN&R’s resident foodie and restaurant reviewer. “Boise has a much larger selection of Basque food and culture than we do.”
Yes, there are only two Basque restaurants in Reno, but that’s two more than most cities. And both restaurants—Louis’ Basque Corner, 301 E. Fourth St., 323-7203, and Santa Fe Hotel, 235 Lake St., 323-1891—are staples of the local culinary landscape—long-running, family-owned joints that have been popular for generations. Debates about which of the two places is better can grow fierce and bitter. Either way, the misleadingly named sweetbreads—which are neither sweet nor bread—are worth trying, as is the picon punch, the cuisine’s signature drink. Still, two beloved restaurants don’t really constitute a region-defining culinary movement—especially not when the food in question already represents a region and ethnic population on the other side of the planet.Fish food
Perhaps Reno’s culinary identity is not based on a single dish, but rather a style of eating: gluttonous face-stuffing. For Reno folks, accustomed to all-you-can-eat sushi, it can be a confusing experience to dine out on sushi anywhere else. You walk into any sushi restaurant in Northern Nevada, and the assumption is almost always AYCE. The host or hostess might confirm, “All-you-can-eat, right?” or you might even need to speak up if you want to order a la carte. Most other places, asking about the AYCE price is like asking the conductor of a symphony orchestra to play “Free Bird.” Some recent transplants to Reno refuse to eat out at local sushi restaurants for fear of observing the trough-slurping approach to edible art.
Sushi & Teri, a now defunct south Reno restaurant is sometimes credited with starting AYCE sushi back in the ’90s. To compete, other local sushi places started offering the deal, and now it’s considered industry standard in the valley, with at least two dozen local restaurants offering AYCE deals.
The AYCE sushi ritual might be a surprising holdover from the glory days of the local casino industry, when casino buffets were considered hot spots.
“It’s still a town whose eating habits are influenced by the casino buffet mentality—quantity and price over quality,” said Art Farley, the owner of Brasserie Saint James, a popular and award-winning Belgian-influenced brewpub in midtown. “That’s why all-you-can-eat sushi is so popular here, and also why a proper and traditional sushi bar will probably never make it in Reno. In fact, all-you-can-squat-and-gobble sushi may be the closest thing we have to a Reno signature meal. I’ve heard it started in Reno, but I have not taken the time to confirm whether that is true. It’s the one thing everyone I know in Reno eats regularly.”
Although many sushi lovers, including Farley, think that the quality of local sushi suffers because of the emphasis on AYCE dining, other local foodies think the fact that the local market is so competitive helps keep the quality up.
“The closest thing I can come up with as being a Reno phenomenon—if not actually a unique cuisine—is AYCE sushi that doesn’t suck,” said South. “Although it is becoming more common to find the occasional AYCE sushi bar in other cities, more often than not the quality is very poor. … The thing that perhaps makes Reno sushi stand out is the sheer number of restaurants offering it, the competitive nature of the market, and the fact new options open every year.”
Either way, there’s some irony to eating a food with as many supposed health benefits as sushi in a manner as unhealthy as AYCE tends to be.
“All-you-can-eat sushi and seafood buffets—while these might be the first things that come to mind for tourists, they are not exactly representative of Reno’s cultural and culinary heritage,” said Barrie Schuster, a local realtor involved with historical building preservation causes in the area and former owner of Café De Luxe.The first meal
Schuster proposes that Reno doesn’t necessarily have a signature dish or even a signature approach to eating, but instead has a signature meal: breakfast.
“Have you seen the lines outside all of Reno’s breakfast places on a Sunday morning?” she asked. “Does any other city breakfast the way Reno does? Or is this just a sign of a breakfast restaurant shortage?”
Some of the most popular and beloved local restaurants are breakfast joints, like Peg’s Glorified Ham n Eggs, which has expanded from a single location in downtown Reno, 420 S. Sierra St., 329-2600, to a small chain with locations all over the region. Two Chicks, 752 S. Virginia St., 323-0600, is an anchor of Reno’s midtown and one of the city’s most popular new restaurants. But big, sloppy breakfasts are part of a long tradition in the valley—the meal is a cornerstone for classic Reno restaurants, like the iconic Gold ’N Silver Inn, 790 W. Fourth St., 323-2696, and most of the casino diners have offered various breakfast specials over the years.
In fact, the love of breakfast is also based on an emphasis on quantity: Reno breakfasts, like Reno sushi, are often big meals with giant plates of food. Schuster speculates that local love of breakfast is the flip side of another well-documented local habit: Binge drinking. Many Renoites are perversely proud of our deliriously high per-capita alcohol consumption. Drinking happens 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week here, and we love it. And what’s best after a long night of drinking (possibly one preceded by a long day of drinking)? A big ol’ breakfast to soak up the remaining booze, maybe accompanied with a Bloody Mary or a mimosa for hair-of-the-dog purposes, or maybe with a strong, stimulating cup of coffee to perhaps achieve some semblance of equilibrium.
So, what is Reno’s signature food? There’s no definitive answer. Basque cuisine, big breakfasts and AYCE sushi are all contenders, but they’re not the only ones. For many longtime locals, the casino steakhouses still offer the final word on quality. The city’s large Latino population means that there’s a lot of great options for Mexican and Salvadorean food, but no single dish dominates. In fact, the Mexican food landscape in Reno remains gloriously complex. There’s no single restaurant that stands as the best in the valley. Instead, the answer to which Mexican restaurant is the best changes for each dish. Want a burrito al pastor? Go to Mi Ranchito, 500 Denslowe Drive, 337-8411. A fish taco? Beto’s, 575 W. Fifth St., 324-0632.
Some folks might claim that the Awful Awful burger from the (Little) Nugget, 233 N. Virginia St., 323-0716, might be in the running as a signature dish of the city, but the “Awful Awful” name is now widely used to refer to mediocre, run-of-the-mill burgers throughout the valley. There’s nothing distinctive about it other than the name.
Reno is still a relatively young city, and the market for culinary innovation has only recently started to take off here.
“I don’t believe Reno has a signature dish or cuisine, if you will,” said Farley. “It’s not a large enough or old enough city with a diverse enough population or food culture to have that evolve yet. I say yet because I hope it will, and we have pushed the envelope by serving people dishes like our house made blood sausage, tripe cassoulet, braised oxtail or bone marrow, dishes that you never saw on a menu in Reno. … I’d say as a rule it takes a long time for a place to develop a signature dish. Time and diverse population. Reno seems to be headed in the right direction. People just need to be more concerned about the quality and source of their food, and a little less concerned with quantity versus price.”
Most of the cities and regions that have developed signature dishes are older cities that have had time to try many approaches and incorporate ingredients endemic to the region. New England is famous for clam chowder. Key lime pie originates in Key West, where the namesake fruit is plentiful. Ingredients endemic to Reno include piñon nuts and wild rabbit.
“Frankly, I can’t think of many cities in the West that can lay claim to a particular dish or cuisine,” said South. “Coastal towns have seafood, but nothing that stands out in my mind the way New England chowder or Maine lobster do (or Chesapeake blue crab, for that matter). Basque food is scattered throughout California, Idaho and Nevada ranching areas. ’California Cuisine’ sort of makes sense, but that’s a pretty broad category without a single definition.” (Although, more often than not, in menu speak, “California” is usually code for “with avocado.”)
“I think Reno’s food culture has had a major paradigm shift recently, and we are moving into a new era,” said Schuster. “I think the real answer to this question lies somewhere between ’Old Reno’ and the new local food culture that has been facilitated by the Great Basin Food Co-op’s [Distributors of Regional and Organic Produce & Products] system. When I think of Old Reno food, I think Basque and Italian. Some of the oldest restaurants in Reno are Casale’s, the Santa Fe Hotel and the Gold ’N Silver. There’s obviously a reason they’ve been around so long. The new era of Reno food culture has a strong local component to everything from meats to eggs to vegetables. Many of the dishes that I am seeing in the new restaurants are reminiscent of Basque cuisine: heavy on the meat, but with a modern twist.”
So, maybe Reno’s signature dish just hasn’t been developed yet. And maybe it’ll be something that incorporates Basque flavors, local ingredients, heavy on meats, served at breakfast, in bulk.